By David Barr
According to Scripture, the cross is “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). It is his victory over sin and death; it is the completed sacrifice, and it is the great symbol of hope for the world. The cross, in other words, is the victory.
And yet as we move through John 15–19 with the Good Book Club, we find that the cross is also the cup. It is God’s destiny for his Son and for those who belong to him. It is the cup of blessing, the cup of the Lord, and the cup of God’s wrath. It is the way of God’s purgative judgment and it is the cup of redemption.
John makes this truth known as he tells of Jesus’ arrest. Right after Jesus has announced his plans to his disciples, made public his prayer to the Father, and set his eyes toward Jerusalem, soldiers approach Jesus to take him away. The ever-eager Peter has other plans, however, and draws his sword, cutting off the ear of Malchus in order to defend his beloved master.
But this defense is not something that Jesus asks for or requires. He rebukes Peter: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). There is no avoiding what is ahead, Jesus seems to say. All that is to come — the judgment, the crucifixion, and the agony — cannot be maneuvered around. There is no avoiding the “cup of fury” for “all the nations to drink” (Jer. 25:15–17) that has now passed to him.
We come to know more about this cup when we turn back. This cup appears before nations as the result of violent sin and unrepentant disobedience. There is “the cup of trembling,” spoken of by Isaiah, given by the Lord (51:17), brimful of punishment and wrath. There is also the irrefusable cup in Jeremiah, the one that “you shall certainly drink” (25:28). And there is the “sister’s cup,” which is shared together by Samaria and Jerusalem, and which “is deep and large… for it contains much…a cup of horror and desolation” (23:32–33).
This is the cup that Jesus must drink and “drain it out and gnaw its shards” (Ezek. 23:34). But we must also realize that it is a shared cup. Both Samaria and Jerusalem together suffer under its doom. We see this working out as Jesus approaches Golgotha in his prayer to the Father, that his disciples “may be in us.” To be in Jesus, then, is to share in drinking the cup that the Father gives him (Matt. 20:23; Mark 10:39).
The bitter cup is certainly not a drink that we anticipate with lighthearted expectation. Jesus himself knows what it entails and prays that it might pass (Luke 22:42). We might even see this cup as the temple censer, bearing the burning coals by which the sin offering will be consumed at the altar (Lev. 16:12).
But the cup that Jesus must drink and that we share with him is, nonetheless, the cup of the Lord (1 Cor. 10:16, 21) and so it is indeed the cup of salvation (Ps. 116:13), the portion of our inheritance (Ps. 16:5). This awesome, fearful cup is also, by some great mystery, the one that “runs over,” the festive, audacious uplifting in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23:5). But how is this so? How can it be both? It is so because it is shared.
The book of Exodus does not mention or describe the cup of the Passover Seder, but it shows up in the Passover meal, the Last Supper, that Jesus shares with his disciples. Jesus declares that it is the “cup of the new covenant” in his blood (Luke 22:20), and then, together, they drink of it. The disciples consume the blood of their Lord, understood as the blood of the Passover lamb, which protected their ancestors’ households from the death of the first-born.
What is the nature of this shared cup? Is the punishment of God sieved out, leaving celebration and blessing only? I think not. It is, indeed, a new covenant, the cup pointing to the completion of the sacrifice: “It is finished” (John 19:30). But salvation is always also a sharing. It involves the Israelites being sent out into the desert to meet God, and it involves the disciples going where they do not want to go, taking up their own crosses, and following their Lord.
The point here is that the cup is truly shared — we drink from the cup that our Father gives to the Lord Jesus, and our fates are bound. And that sharing is the place where blessing can come — the only place where blessing can come! It is where we are covered over as the blood covered the doorposts in the Passover; it is the place where we drink and recline in the face of our enemies; and it is the place where Jerusalem can bless Samaria.
We see in our readings that when Jesus prays for us to be united to him and to the Father, there is then no other way we can choose if we are to be blessed, apart from the one that the Father gives Jesus. Will we, like Peter, attempt to strike a different course — whether through violence, strategy, or indifference? Or will we, together, receive the cup as it is passed around the table, drinking from it and binding our futures to one another and to our Lord? It is God’s promise that the cup of his right hand, which yields at one horrible moment nothing but shame (Habakkuk 2:16), will also turn to overflowing abundance in the face of our enemies, sustenance in the desert, and the passing on of God’s wrath as death yields to resurrection.
The Rev. David Barr is associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN.